Written by Natalie Berner

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  • Area: 93.030 square kilometers
  • Population: 9.85 million (2015)
  • Capital: Budapest
  • State form: parliamentary republic
  • Official language: Hungarian
  • Religion: Roman Catholic (37 percent, 2011)

  • Flag of Hungary

    The Hungarian media is dominated by right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz. Since his re-election in 2010, Viktor Orbán introduced several media laws, which centralized public broadcasting. Strong media control authorities were created and commercial broadcasting is tackled via taxation. The biggest oppositional newspaper was shut down and the ruling party wants to push back foreign media comapnies. Ownership structures get changed in favour of the government either with wealthy party supporters taking over existing media outlets or setting up new ones. The political far-right became mainstream in Hungary, which increases the risk for journalists to report critically about them. Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia are significant problems of the society. However, journalists don’t have to fear physical harm and opinion pluralism is theoretically possible. Some oppositional outlets still exist. Hungary is ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House (2016).
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment
    As a former socialist state, Hungary started its transition to democracy and capitalism in 1989. Ten years later, in 1999, Hungary became part of the Western military alliance NATO and in 2004 Hungary joined the European Union. During a twenty-year long period of political discontinuity, the governing parties were changing in every electoral cycle. In 2010, Viktor Orbán became Prime Minister for the second time (the first period was from 1998 to 2002, he spent eight years in opposition). His party is the national conservative Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance), which was able to achieve a supermajority in the elections of 2010 and 2014 (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 253). It allowed Prime Minister Orbán and his party Fidesz – in cooperation with their ally the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) and two-thirds of the parliamentary seats – to change the constitution in 2011. Critics say that the renewal “weakened political checks and balances and entrenched the ruling party’s power” (BBC, 2016). Moreover, Orbán “has concentrated an unprecedented amount of power in his hands while alarming other EU leaders with his brand of national populism” (ibid.). Within the European Union Victor Orbán was often criticized. For instance he stated his wish to “create an illiberal state” (ibid.) in Hungary and he argued that “authoritarian systems such as China, Turkey and Russia are a more appropriate model than Western liberal democracies“(ibid.) for Hungary.
    The popularity of the extreme right has dramatically risen. The national party Jobbik gained more than 20 percent in the general elections in 2014 which made far-right ideals mainstream in Hungary (Boros, 2015). Especially with the growing fragmentation of the left-wing parties, “Jobbik undoubtedly became the second most popular party in the country” (ibid.). Reasons are diverse, but there is a “widespread disappointment with the entire political elite and the results of the regime transition”. Moreover poverty is rising since the financial crisis “which has led to growing social tensions and fears especially in the lower middle-classes” (ibid.). Jobbik is specifically against the EU membership of Hungary and “wishes to anchor Hungarian foreign policy in the East, working with Russia, Asia and the Arab world” (Boros, 2015). Aggression and tensions between different population segments like Roma and Non-Roma are taking place (ibid.). Anti-Semitism and xenophobia are serious problems, too, especially Jobbik is legitimizing these positions. However, people within the government were e.g. honouring fascist historical figures too (Freedom in the World, 2016). Nationalist policies were benefiting from the refugee crisis as well. Hungary became an important stopover on the Balkan route for people arriving from Greece headed for Northern Europe in 2015. Consequently, Orbán built fences at the border with Croatia and Serbia, which was controversially discussed among the EU member states (Dunai, 2017). Media guidelines set up by the government accompanied these political actions. According to the Freedom of the Press report (2016) “a public agency and police interfered with coverage of the refugee crisis.” A memo of the government emerged which “instructed public TV workers to avoid showing images of women and children in their coverage of the refugee crisis” (Freedom of the Press, 2016). Already during the Nineties, when Orbán came into power the first time, there were two so called “media wars” in Hungary. The conservative government fought against the alleged left-liberal media. Many government-critical journalists were replaced and a “new dimension of nepotism” was reached (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 264). The lack of transparency in the political sector and corruption remains a notable problem as Freedom in the World outlines (2016). This concerns the transparency of the public-media funding, too.

    Legal Environment
    As mentioned above, there was a new constitution implemented in Hungary in 2011. The Preamble stresses the Christian heritage of the country (“we recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood”) as well as “the family and the nation” as framework of coexistence. Furthermore, the belief is expressed, that Hungarian “children and grandchildren will make Hungary great again with their talent, persistence and moral strength.” This Preamble reflects a conservative Christian worldview focusing on national pride, which is in line with the ideals of the ruling party.
    Freedom of press and freedom of speech are guaranteed in the constitution although Freedom in the World says that the ”complex and extensive media legislation enacted under the Fidesz government is widely deemed to have undermined these guarantees” (2016). In 2015, amendments were made to the Freedom of Information Act, which obstructs the fulfillment of any information requests (ibid.). Either via high charges due to “labor costs” or by saying the data “could be used in future government decisions” (ibid.). This can be seen as obstacles for free reporting since access to information is hindered.
    Ever since his re-election, Orbán “steadily tightened his grip on the media” (Reporters without Borders, 2016). By now, the Hungarian media system can be seen as Etatism type, which means strong and direct state influence. This brings Hungary – according to the typologie of – close to the media system of Russia, Belarus or Myanmar.
    To have an eye on the media landscape there are three media bodies:

    • the Media Services and Support Trust Fund (MTVA), which is the public media umbrella organization,

    • the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) and

    • the Media Council.

    The NMHH was introduced in 2011 and media outlets, including online services, must be registered by it. The authority can ”revoke licenses for infractions“ (Freedom in the World, 2016). Critics called the founding of the NMHH a move towards “enforced synchronization”, because all media are now controlled by one organ staffed with pro-governmental persons (Verseck & Hecking, 2014). The Media Council is allowed to close outlets if they are not registered, or if they air content “that incites hatred” (Freedom in the World, 2016). There is a high entanglement between Fidesz politicians and the NMHH as well as the Media Council. Council members have to be elected by a parliamentary majority. The head of the Media Council decides who will become executive director of all public media. Therefore, the dependency between the party in power and the cast of top positions in the public media is obvious. However, the NMHH and Media Council are at least theoretically and according to the media law autonomous and independent from each other (Freedom of the Press, 2016
    Defamation is still a criminal offense by law, which can be used against journalists (ibid.). Nevertheless, Freedom House ranked Press Freedom in Hungary as “partly free” with particularly bad scores regarding the legal environment (12 out of 30) (ibid.).
    Media offers
    Characteristics of the media market
    When it comes to ownership structures, there are the public broadcasters and the commercial media. The latter are concentrated in the hands of some powerful international corporations (Sashegyi, 2016: 61). To mention here are particularly Ringier (Swiss) and Axel Springer (Germany), both working together in the East European market, and Bertelsmann (Germany) operating the biggest commercial TV broadcaster in Hungary, RTL Klub.
    80 per cent of the media are owned by Western media houses (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 18). This applies for Hungary but as well for Poland or the Czech Republic. After the collapse of Communism, the Eastern European countries became an attractive sales market for Western media companies. The investors signed joint venture agreements with the most important communistic media. Without public discussion, transparency, or control, licenses and outlets were absorbed. This influence is still evident, and an important foundation for today’s ownership structures (ibid.). Since Western media houses are more independent of domestic policy, the aim of the Orbán government is to decrease the percentage of Western holdings (Foxnews, 2016).
    With the import of already established outlets, the international corporations could reduce their costs while simultaneously boost their sales. To copy a concept which was centrally designed, led to content-related conformity. Regional newspapers resemble each other regarding content, although they seem diverse on the surface (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 18).
    Next to the public broadcasters, which are controlled by the government anyway, the ruling Fidesz party has “sought to extend its power over the private media sector”, too, since its re-election in 2014 (BBC, 2016). This happened either with wealthy party supporters taking over existing media outlets or setting up new ones (ibid.). A famous example is the shutdown of the daily newspaper and online news portal Nepszabadsag (People’s Freedom) in October 2016. The paper was Hungary’s leading newspaper with the highest national circulation. First it was bought from “government-linked oligarchs” (dpa, 2016), shortly afterwards the paper was closed. It was said that the shutdown was caused by some “highly critical articles exposing government corruption and misuse of state funds by ministers” (Freedom on the Net, 2016).

    The public media broadcasters are owned by the state. The media law of 2010 centralized the funding and content production for all public media under the umbrella organization MTVA as mentioned above. There are three public stations:

    • Magyar Televizio (MTV) with six different channels,

    • Magyar Radio (MR) with six channels and

    • Duna TV, which is targeting specifically the diaspora of the neighbouring countries.

    Duna TV gets a relatively big share of the national broadcasting budget (24 per cent; Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 266). Broadcasting fees were abolished in 2002 by the social-liberal government as an election gift. Since then MTV, MR and Duna TV are directly dependent on grants of the state budget (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 256). Commercial broadcasting was introduced relatively late, in 1996. With private players entering the broadcasting market, at least the political interference was reduced (ibid.: 264). However, fundamental political coverage was only found on public broadcasting since the new stations on the market were neither critical nor neutral but above all apolitical (ibid.: 265). Meanwhile private television is the most used medium in Hungary (Mérték Media Monitoring, 2016). Biggest player is RTL Klub, which belongs to the Bertelsmann group. In 2015, the international corporation clashed with the government over advertising taxes (Reuters, 2015). The Orbán administration introduced a taxation which hit the German media group particularly hard. RTL said “that the tax was an attempt to force it out of business in Hungary” (ibid.). This fits into Orbán’s strategy to reduce the influence of the Western media in his country.
    The biggest rival for market share inside the Hungarian TV market is TV2. It used to belong to ProSiebenSat.1 when it was sold to the Hungarian-American film producer Andrew G. Vajna. He is the government commissioner for the Hungarian film industry (Keszthelyi, 2017) and part of the political elite. After the purchase, TV 2 was exempt from taxation via a special clause by the Orbán government (Verseck & Hecking, 2014).
    Echo TV, once owned by Gabor Szeles who will be described in the print section, was sold to a company owned by Lorinc Meszaros, “a village mayor whose business empire has expanded greatly with the help of state contracts” (Foxnews, 2016). Meszaros stated that Echo TV was launched to assist the success of the political right. Furthermore, he supported the governmental aim of repurchasing local media outlets which are owned by foreign companies (ibid.). The Hungarian Faith Church owns ATV, the first private TV channel. It has a non-governmental-friendly stance and is said to be left-wing or liberal (BBC, 2016).
    Popular radio stations are Slager FM, which belongs to an US corporation and is specialised on music (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 267) and Class FM, which had the largest reach during a long period (Mérték Media Monitoring, 2016). Class FM used to belong to Lajos Simicska, a former media oligarch “who has had a falling out with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán” (Elsner, 2016). Since he split with Fidesz, the many media outlets owned by Simicska changed their political line from governmental-friendly to critical. As a consequence of the quarrel between Orbán and Simicska the construction firm of Simicska “which had been one of the most successful firms when it came to winning government tenders, has been prohibited from even bidding for government work” (ibid.). Class FM is a good example of how political and personal power struggles are fought inside (in friendly or non-friendly reporting) and behind (through ownership) the media.
    Private radio stations, which are completely or partly in foreign hands, have almost fifty percent market share (Sashegyi, 2016: 62). Concerning public radio the most important national station is Kossuth Rádió. During Orbáns first “media war” in 1998, the Prime Minister had weekly airtime to speak on relevant political issues without giving the opposition the chance to speak, too. (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 253).

    Print and Online
    Within the Print sector one influential newspaper is Magyar Hirlap. It is a conservative daily, which is owned by Gabor Szeles, one of the richest Hungarian businesspersons and active supporter of the Fidesz governing alliance (Lambert, 2016). He hired amongst others Zsolt Bayer in 2008, a writer who takes anti-Semitic and xenophobic views (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 261). The newspaper stands for a nationalistic and anti-globalizationist position (ibid.).
    Another conservative daily is Magyar Nemzet, which is closely linked to the ruling party Fidesz and arises from the same political camp as Magyar Hirlap. The national newspaper Nepszava is representing the centre-left (BBC, 2016). After the closing down of Nepszabadsag it remains the last national opposition newspaper. Ringier publishes the leading Boulevard brand Blikk, which has several special interest offshoots and is published in tabloid format (Ringier Axel Springer, n.d.). The most prestigious foreign print product was the German Daily Pester Lloyd. Since 2009, it switched to an online version. The paper is loaded with history and a so-called “venerable institution”, which was reanimated after the end of communism (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 260). The online version has a liberal Orbán-critical stance, their slogan claims to be “independent, pluralistic and rich in tradition” – a rare combination in the Hungarian media landscape.
    Regional newspapers have a large readership and are important news sources in Hungary. However, the regional outlets are “typically read by the elderly consumers (only 14 percent of those aged 18-29 read them at least once a month). So a further decline in their influence is to be expected” (Mérték Media Monitoring, 2016).
    The biggest national news agency is MTI. It is state owned and “managed by a board of trustees which is set up from delegates from the political parties in Parliament” (Beke, n.d.). It is an important communication tool for the government, which delivers “major policy decisions (…), promptly followed by expert analysis” as it is described on their website (mti, 2017). Small, critical online portals like have an important task in Hungary: they keep the pluralism of opinion alive even if the mainstream media are getting more and more “Orbánized” (Kahlweit, 2017).
    The Internet Penetration lies between 73 percent (Freedom on the Net, 2016) and 76.1 percent (UNDP, 2015). There was no official censorship of social media apps or political content in 2016 (Freedom on the Net, 2016). In 2014, the government announced plans for an internet tax which “sparked widespread protest” and made the Orbán administration withdrawing the proposal (ibid.).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Characteristic for many states in transition are precarious working conditions for journalists. Well-educated people have to work underpaid and in fragile employee relationships. Especially Duna TV has a bad reputation in this respect (Stegherr & Liesem, 2010: 256). The bad working conditions and financial pressure lead to lower quality and in final consequence to less consumers, particularly regarding newspapers. Already during the first “media wars” mass dismissals of oppositional journalists took place (ibid.: 251). The critical cost situation within the public sector was used as leverage to get rid of unloved employees or to replace them with uncritical ones. Government-favourable reporting was exchanged for financial betterment (ibid.: 266). Political pressure of the ruling government put journalist in line or caused self- censorship because of the fear of dismissal (ibid.: 264).
    Another sensible topic is the political far-right. Because of the popularity of right-wing extremists among the population, the risk for journalists increases to report about them critically. Self-censorship and avoidance are possible results (ibid.: 255). The harsh tone of the popular Jobbik party legitimates anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist opinions, which are obviously widespread in Hungary if one looks at the election results.
    Even foreign correspondents were tackled by the so called “control group”, which blamed correspondents, who were reporting critically about Hungary as their host country. A list of “suspicious journalists” was published, containing journalists of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Handelsblatt, or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (ibid.: 254).
    It is said that it was hard for Hungarian journalists to get used to Western ideals of journalism, like neutrality or objectivity, since many of them were socialized in the socialist system (ibid.: 250). Before the communist takeover in 1948, the “engaged journalism” was common, which means commentary versus news and mobilization versus information (ibid.). Nowadays, journalists want to be “detached observers” and “report things as they are” (Worlds of Journalism Study, 2016). In the light of bad working conditions and political entanglement inside the ownership structures, it remains questionable how autonomous journalists can work in Hungary within mainstream media, if they want to express critical views or investigate on governmental failures.

    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Natalie Berner: Hungary. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

    Protests after shutdown of famous oppositional newspaper. Source: Népszabi, Pester

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